6 Jul 2009

One piece at a time . . .

. . . and it didn’t cost him a dime. My garden furniture being removed, that is.

I blogged a couple of months ago about opening the back door to find the early stages of a wasps nest being built against the door frame and how last summer I had watched one particular wasp come to one of my timber seats regularly to strip off the wood for one such nest.

They seemingly take timber from convenient nearby sources and basically chew it into pulp for the paper that goes to make the fascinating many layered paper dome shaped nest – rather like a large paper onion – they inhabit.

Well, there we were on Sunday, enjoying a mid-afternoon brew in the garden between tasks and another wasp landed on the back of the bench I was on and started doing his timber stripping routine. The one I’d watched last year was a little more self-conscious – he didn’t like an audience and if he became aware of me, he’d sidle off down the back of the chair to harvest his building materials unseen.

But this chap wasn’t quite so precious about his task, he quite brazenly worked a few inches from me, the rhythmical sound of his timber work alerting me to his arrival. He would fly off with his cargo and return shortly for some more. It’s fascinating that they return to exactly the spot they left, literally continuing the stripping from where he left off – the whole garden to work in and he flies back to the very fibres he had got to on his last trip, the same as I’d witnessed last summer.

I was also interested that the wasp last year and this fellow had different techniques. Last year he would meticulously roll up the 2mm wide strip he removed as he worked and once it had become quite a bulky chunk under his chin, he’d secure it and fly off. This chap on Sunday was somewhat more haphazard in his technique. He seemingly stripped fibres off loosely and when he was satisfied he had a decent quantity, he’d rear up on his back legs, sort it out with his front legs, tucking it into a loose bundle and when he was happy it was safely gathered together, he’d fly off.

I suspect that he’s young and still has learning to do – he didn’t appear quite as efficient as his predecessor.

He seemed to gather it loosely, then rear up on his hind legs in order to secure his load with his front legs, before take off. Please click the photo for a larger view.
4 May 2009

One of natures great engineers

We went out in the garden to do some work yesterday (see last blog) and as I stood on the doorstep I could hear a little noise – looking up there was a wasp working on her nest on the door frame. It’s a fabulous structure, but we couldn’t leave it there. I just managed to snatch a handful of photos before Mr Boo removed it. And yes, my door frame does desperately need painting.

This was my first view of the nest, pretty much in silhouette in the door frame.

It was a stunningly clever structure and I was loathe to break it off, but having seen how large (and how fast) one got in a friend’s garden last summer, decided we needed to be rid of it at this stage.

My reading would suggest that at this time of year, the larger than average wasp building the structure was probably a queen. It seems that all wasps except queens die off over winter and she survives having holed up somewhere safe in an old nest or new small one she makes just for the purpose. In late April/early May, the queen starts off making a small new nest in order to lay her eggs.

She was fertilised last year and lays her eggs in the new part-made nest and as they hatch, they continue with the structure in order to make a full size nest for the entire colony. The nests can grow up to 30cm (1′) in diameter or more and will likely be occupied all summer. Looks like we were right to destroy it before it took hold, she won’t have been alone for long.

She was very, very annoyed that we undid all her handiwork,
had it been in a better position, we might have left it to develop
and observe, but it really had to go from where it was.

She disappeared inside at one point and I was hoping to see what she
doing, but I was in a very precarious position with a heavy camera and
long lens in one hand and too close to focus, so ducking further
further back to try and focus, so it has a little movement blur.

Last summer I experienced the same little noise when out in the garden and it took me several days to identify it. That too was a wasp – on that occasion he was gathering his building materials rather than using them. He was working away on an old wooden garden chair, removing bits of timber in long thin strips, which he appeared to sheer off with his mouth parts and coil it up as he worked – when he’d got a decent sized piece, he’d fly off out of sight with it, only to return shortly and repeat the process. They apparently chew the wood up into a pulp with their saliva and this gives rise to a paper-type product for the structure of their nests.

Over a few days, he stripped the surface off a lot of my chair. If I went close to either observe or shoo him off, he’d just vanish round the back and continue working, thinking I didn’t know he was there, removing my garden furniture a few grams at a time. The little noise of timber being stripped being the only clue that he was still beavering away on the timber for his home.

In this frame, most of the timber surface has been removed, you can
see the exposed rough fibres and the odd remaining patches of varnished
surface where he’s ‘missed a bit’.